About…   Midnight Gate-opener

A Novel

 

 

 

Beginning of Chapter One

 

The doorbell rang as I rushed into the perfectly cool hall of our house in Tehran and banged the door behind me. It was a dry, hot summer afternoon in 1967, with a mild wind out there blowing dust in the air now and then. Our manservant, Rahim, appeared out of the kitchen and started to go answer the door at the far end of our walled garden. Then Narges popped up like a jinn in the corridor above the stairs. She looked down over the big hall and frowned when her squinty eyes spotted me.

“Kian, go see who’s at the door,” she yelled at me with her forefinger pointing south.

Both Rahim and I froze in our tracks. 

“But I’m thirsty,” I yelled back.

“Go answer the door first,” Narges ordered with her forefinger still pointing south, like I didn’t know where the door was. She kept glaring at me, too, to stop me from arguing. I wasn’t going to, anyway, because it would only become a laughing matter for the servants. I only rolled my eyes and turned, pretending that I was going. From the corner of my eye, I saw her returning to the master bedroom, like proud Genghis Khan marching back to Mongolia. She looked a lot like him, too, going by his picture in my history book in grade five that year.

  That rotten Rahim kept mocking me with a smirk so wide you could count all his teeth. Then he turned on his ugly toes with a swift twist, his fists swinging above his head—like the devil’s dance of victory. The bastard rushed back to the kitchen to continue playing with his newlywed young wife, Batool.

  Narges was always like this. She kept picking on me for no damn reason, as if my frustration was funny or something. Her friends and Father got their share of her mangled charm too. But she especially enjoyed bugging me. I really liked to know why! Actually, solving this mystery had turned into something like a holy mission for me, as if I could put the jinn back into the bottle and escape.

Narges Banu was apparently my mother. Everybody said so. But I’d doubted this outrageous claim almost every day. I wished I could complain to some authorities about this horrible mistake and end this ridiculous relationship. You’ll agree with me soon, I promise. Just wait until you read the stories I’ll be telling you about her. For one thing, she made me work like other servants; sometimes more. She enjoyed my labour, as if she’d carefully planned to give birth to a slave. It didn’t even matter if I’d just returned from school or my friends were calling me from the street to go play with them. Sometimes I said I was sick or had a lot of homework. She just gazed at me like an angry judge checking out the evidence. I had to defend myself and give her proof while Her Honour nodded with suspicion. She then made a ridiculous ruling: “Take an hour to finish your homework.”  What killed me the most—more than work itself—was that I never knew who the hell I was in that family: a servant or a nobleman’s son. Wasn’t my father this wealthy deputy minister in Iran? Wasn’t I the only child of this big shot?

I was still standing in the middle of the hall without really knowing why. Except that stalling was my way of bugging Narges. I really got a big kick out of stalling sometimes. So I just watched Rahim and Batool chuckling in the kitchen and peeping at me through the door. They were laughing at me, those stinking peasants. It really drove me nuts doing their jobs, especially when everybody could see them fooling around instead of working.

Just to give you an example of my chores, I spent over an hour every week to grind the pebbly chunks of gum tragacanth into soft powder in a heavy brass mortar. The pestle was so heavy I had to stop every ten seconds to rest my wrist. The goddamn bits just kept jumping out of the mortar too. I had to collect them and put them back. I held my hand over the opening, but still some clever pieces escaped through the holes around my bony fingers. Every time I said the powder was ready, Narges came over, checked it fast, and yelled: “Not yet… Continue.” She watched me like the Gestapo to make sure I wasn’t fooling around. After a hundred inspections, she’d finally let me go: “Okay, okay… Just leave it there and go.” Instead of a simple thank you, she cursed my half-assed effort in front of the servants while they chuckled. I giggled sometimes myself, too, when Narges continued the grinding herself with her face getting redder and redder from anger.

When the powder was ready, she mixed it with three egg yokes and henna and laid that gross, pasty stuff over her hair for a few hours before taking a shower. It was supposed to boost the roots of her thinning hair, yet I’d seen no improvement all those years—zilch. It was getting thinner, actually, if you asked me. My hard work was just a waste of my time and precious calories. The hens’ painful labour to lay those large eggs was going to waste too. Yet I believed that the hens and I were on the hook forever. I’d be grinding those gum tragacanth bits as long as a single strand still lived on her barren skull. Father had about ten times more hair than she had, at least on his head. I wished a judge or jury could look into this grinding business and rule that this hair treatment wasn’t working. “Just wear your wigs, lady, and let those tormented strands die in peace,” they’d rule while chuckling. Oh, how I wished telling her that myself! This weekly chore alone was driving me nuts, I tell you.

I was insulted, too, the way she favoured our servants over me. This wasn’t my imagination, I swear. For one thing, she kept saying that it was hard to find good help. And she always ordered me, “Be nice to them.” Are you mad!? Do their work and be nice to them, too?

Sometimes, especially while grinding gum tragacanth, I thought of two reasons for Narges’ nastiness. First, maybe I was an orphan or something. Several clues rejected this possibility though. The main clue came from Narges’ circle of friends whenever I barged in on them. They stopped their gossiping to review my height and looks, again. They sounded like lunatics when they insisted that my eyes, nose, or something resembled Narges’ or Father’s. It seemed like they’d been dying for another chance to continue their arguments on this very topic a few weeks earlier. My growing nose raised the most disagreement. Anyway, the way they fought like fools over my resemblance to my so-called parents probably proved that I wasn’t an orphan. My other conclusion about Narges’ malice toward me, and spoiling our servants instead, was too harsh and embarrassing. That is, sometimes, I became so cynical I assumed the worst: that maybe she had some wicked thing going with that sleazy Rahim! Curiosity killed the cat, ha?

‘Curiosity killed the cat’ was Narges’ warning anytime she thought I was being nosy. I didn’t know exactly what she meant, but it sounded like she was hinting that all those cat-killings had been no accidents and I was being warned. But I’m not a sloppy cat, witch, I wanted to tell her.

 

The doorbell rang again and Narges screamed from the master bedroom.

“You’re still here, Kian?”

“Why should I go?” I yelled back just for the heck of it. “Why can’t Rahim go?”

“Because it’s probably your stupid friends who’re ringing the bell. Just go, you devil!” Narges shouted and the servants chuckled harder in the kitchen. I guess we were paying them only to stick around and laugh at us!

“You wanna bet it’s not my stupid friends?” I yelled again.

“NO, JUST GO, YOU HEAR ME?”

Her pitch was so high I flew into the portico and slammed the door behind me. I stopped and gasped, then started staggering along the garden path, around 250 feet, hoping that whoever was behind the damn door would go away. I knew that it wasn’t my friends, because they always shouted for me instead of ringing the doorbell. I’d told them to do so and they did so too. I’d explained it to Narges a million times already also. But she refused to understand, although she could always hear them shouting in the street when they came to get me. She preferred to forget even this obvious fact just to bug me.

Like a turtle, I really took my time to get to the door. Narges must believe someday that she couldn’t trust me to do any job right. Giggling, I unlocked and pulled the small door built inside the wide wrought-iron gate. A thick ten-foot high brick wall surrounded our house and the gate was about eighteen feet wide. It was opened only when my parents arrived and honked their car horns from the street.

Both Rahim and I hated running the long distance in hot summer days or chilly winter nights to open the door for visitors, or the heavy gate for my parents, who always complained anyway. It was a mortal sin if the majesties were kept waiting, or had to get out of the car to ring the bell. Often Rahim and I stared into each other’s eyes, like two poker players, until one of us lost his nerves. Although we each invented great excuses, we didn’t know what goddamn lies the other one was cooking up to tell my parents about the delay and whose story they’d believe better. Sometimes we ran all the way only to discover that the horn hadn’t been from my parents’ cars. In Iran, people honk their car horns all the time for a million stupid reasons anyway. But around our house, the neighbours did it just to show their hatred of my family. I’ll explain the reason later.

Anyhow, nobody was out there when I opened the door. My stalling had worked like a charm. All I had to do now was to shut the door and report to Narges with pleasure that nobody was there. I could look into her squinty eyes—if she opened them a little wider please—and enjoy her frustration for trusting me with all these crappy chores all the time. For some silly reason, however, I stuck my head out the door and watched the woman who was walking away. Why I did it, it’s a big mystery. I bet the Devil pushed my head to ruin my life. The woman turned her head and saw me. Then she walked back toward our house. Now it was too late to shut the door and go away. Anyway, this one simple mistake of sticking my big head out the door changed my life forever. 

As she got close, I noticed that she was a gypsy. Her dark skin and glossy black hair startled me a bit. Her exotic garments and face had a special charm though. I checked her out from head to toe, where her red shoes stuck out from under her long, baggy, black skirt! In this heat!? The colour of her shining blouse and the small scarf around her neck matched the colour of her shoes. All that glossy red burned my retinas, I tell you. The smell of her strong, possibly home-made, perfume tickled my nostrils, but I let it go. I glared at her with tension and a big question mark in my eyes. But she stared at me with absolute calm, like I had all the time in the world. She was really starting to piss me off. If she was a beggar, I’d slam the door in her face so fast her ears would fall off, I swore to God in my head. But, as I gazed at her mouth to speak, my heart banged in my chest. Those lazy lips were so perfect for a big kiss. My fascination felt weird remembering my fury a second earlier.

With the tip of her tongue, she licked the length of her meaty lips, then rounded them like a rose bud. Maybe she was showing them off or trying to say something. Maybe she was dumb, praying, putting a spell on me, or only teasing my obvious impatience. My tension was gone, though, as I swam in a soothing fantasy. I just couldn’t take my eyes off her moist, pinkish lips. They quivered quietly, like a rainforest butterfly flapping its wings to shake off the pesky raindrops. Some unusual peace and pleasure had made me speechless to shout: “What…? What do you want?” Usually I could be rude to beggars, which seemed to make up for my timidity around others. She kept gauging me, too, like she’d forgotten her reason for ringing the doorbell.

“Go ask your mother if she wants me to tell her fortune,” She said at last.

Now she was ordering me around too! I almost slammed the door in her face, but quickly realized that she was too pretty for that. So I raced all the way back into the house and climbed the stairs to the second floor. In the master bedroom, Narges was ironing Father’s shirts with incredible care. Her attention to the starched collars of his shirts was stunning. But all those desperate attempts to satisfy Father appeared ridiculous when you saw their regular fights and deep spite. She always cursed him behind his back too. When I passed on the gypsy’s message, she unplugged the iron and dashed toward the stairs. She told me to bring the gypsy inside the house. So I charged again toward the gate. With hand motions and broken words, panting like a racing horse, I led the gypsy through the garden path toward the house entrance.

“You have a beautiful garden,” the gypsy woman said. “Especially those red roses are gorgeous.”

I looked around to see what the hell she was talking about now. Everything looked boring like usual, especially now, with my mood and all. What was so special about those flowers and shrubs that most people admired right away? I never understood Father’s fuss around them and arguing with gardeners either. This gypsy woman likes anything that is red, anyway, was my brilliant conclusion. I only peeped at her hesitantly.

“Smell them one day… she said, probably thinking that I was stupid.

I got this comment even less, but decided to let it go. This time I didn’t even peep at her lest she’d think I was indeed stupid or teasing her.